Give students back their agency

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Sep 3, 2013

“Men often oppose a thing merely because they have no agency in planning it, or because it may have been planned by those whom they dislike.” – Alexander Hamilton

Agency—the power to make choices.  One unfortunate consequence of the factory-style, traditional K–12 classroom is that students have far too little of it.

This is not the result of maliciousness on anyone’s part. It’s more a systemic reality inherent to the design.  In the traditional model, students are like “work in progress (WIP),” the term for partially finished factory inventory, halfway between raw materials and finished product. They are objects to be acted upon, not to act. The system conveys the WIP in batches through each grade level and standardized set of prescribed curriculum. Variation and individual preference run counter to the model, which depends instead on tight specifications and intolerance for deviation.

I once heard an education thought leader say he hopes we just open the doors and free high school students into the sunshine, at least until a less authoritarian system becomes available.

Releasing high school students onto the street sounds like a bad idea to me for a host of reasons. But liberating students within schools—now that’s a cause for which to fight.

Even the U.S. military, an organization long characterized by rigid, authoritarian discipline, is reconsidering its top-down approach to instruction. In the past, the U.S. needed military personnel who were disciplined and physically fit; today, the ability to communicate, be inquisitive, and respond entrepreneurially to intelligence data are more important competencies in modern warfare. According to Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the need to innovate to train soliders 2.0 is forcing the military to rethink the central importance of hierarchy. In the old drill sergeant model, “you sat there and he yelled at you and you took notes and you got out of boot camp,” said Dempsey in this interview with Thomas Friedman. But that authoritarian approach does not build soldiers who can own the mission in the way America needs today.

Why are schools reluctant to shift away from the hierarchical model toward one that is more student centered and student controlled? Said another way, Laura Sandefer asks in her excellent blog: “Do you trust the children?.”

I think there are a few reasons why many hesitate to give students agency. The first, as I allude to above, is that the factory model is at odds with individualization. The interdependencies within the traditional model make customization around individual preferences extremely expensive, similar to the cost implications of trying to customize even a single line of code in the Windows 8 operating system. That’s the main reason why most schools have not been able to create individual education programs (IEPs) for each student. But that barrier is rapidly dissolving. Online learning has an inherently modular architecture, which unlocks a way for customization to be much simpler and more affordable. As online learning migrates into brick-and-mortar schools—a phenomenon known as blended learning—educators have access to more affordable ways to allow students to choose the format and pace in which they want to learn. But even with these new models, I still hear people talk wistfully about a day when teachers will give all students their own IEPs, and it makes be cringe because I wonder why we’re not envisioning a day when all students will develop their own IEPs.

A second reason schools resist giving students agency is due to uncertainty about how to do it. Fortunately, Diane Tavenner of Summit Public Schools is blazing a helpful and bright trail in this regard. In her post “It’s about self-directed learning,” Tavenner talks about how to give students a roadmap that provides them with the behaviors, skills, and structures that help them become self-directed learners. She provides intervention strategies to help students who are struggling to set personal goals, exercise individual agency, and deal with the accountability that comes with the freedom to control their own learning plans.

Third, I personally suspect that many people have a racial or socioeconomic bias that causes them to assume that certain students are unable to learn to exercise agency effectively. I’m fascinated by the pioneering research of Professor Jennifer Keys Adair at the University of Texas at Austin, who is addressing this topic by studying the effects of increasing the amount of agency in classrooms serving children of Latino immigrants. She has found that students respond positively—developing important qualities in both their social and academic development—when they are able to have more influence over how and what they learn.

Finally, I think many people resist giving students agency because they worry students will make poor choices, not to mention that children need to learn to respect authority. But refusing agency on this basis is the surest way to ensure that children remain immature and dependent forever. In this complicated, information-heavy world, we need to develop children 2.0 who can confidently and entrepreneurially respond to the complexity of their circumstances.

A wise man once said “teach them correct principles and they govern themselves.” As educators pioneer  student-centered, individualized models for learning (such as the Individual Rotation and Flex models, two blended-learning models that I think have special potential), let’s be sure that freeing students to make decisions and have a say in what and how they learn figures prominently into the plan.

If you like this topic, I’d appreciate your vote for the proposal Professor Adair and I submitted to discuss student agency at the SXSWedu conference next spring. You can vote here for the proposal, entitled “Tear down the wall: Giving students agency”). Voting ends Sep. 6, 2013. Thank you!

Heather is an adjunct researcher for the Christensen Institute and president of Ready to Blend. She is the co-author of Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools and co-founder of Brain Chase Productions, which produces online-learning challenges disguised as worldwide treasure hunts for students in grades 1-8.